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Where science and ethics meet

Physicist Freeman Dyson explores the ability of science to help us make sense of the world.

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Throughout history scientists from Galileo to Andrei Sakharov have been persecuted for challenging the orthodoxy of their societies. But in The Scientist as Rebel, Freeman Dyson advocates rebellion of a broader kind.

Science, the theoretical physicist writes, should rebel "against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice." Benjamin Franklin is Dyson's ideal of the scientific rebel, one who embodied "thoughtful rebellion, driven by reason and calculation more than by passion and hatred." If science ever stops rebelling against authority, Dyson insists, it won't deserve to be pursued by our brightest children.

In this highly readable compilation of previously published essays and book reviews written over nearly four decades, Dyson also rebels against the idea that scientists should only concern themselves with the problems of the laboratory.

In one chapter he asks "can science be ethical?" In another he explores the uneasy relationship between science and religion ("Is God in the lab?"). He considers the qualities of mind expressed by the great scientists of the past in essays such as "In Praise of Amateurs" and "Seeing the Unseen."

What is science? Dyson quotes from biologist J.B.S. Haldane: "It is man's gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul."

Dyson, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, has made his own share of contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge, in fields from nuclear physics to quantum electrodynamics. But here he also proves himself an adept essayist on ethical issues less obviously connected with science.


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